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Are Books Dead?

Updated on July 31, 2014
Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin tries to maintain an active position in the Hubpages writing community.

Are physical books disappearing from our culture?
Are physical books disappearing from our culture? | Source

The intimacy one has with a book, the smell of paper, the heft of weight in your hand, the turning of a page, the ability to flip through and in a matter of seconds find the passage that was so meaningful to you. The pageantry of presentation, the artful dust jacket, the distinctive wear of age, creased pages, underline marks, colorful observations scribbled in the margins. Can it really all be going away?

I grew up in a time of books and computers. By the time I was in high school the internet was just starting to gather real steam. It was an exciting time to be alive, to suddenly be able to have all this information available at just the click of a button, but I never imagined this newfound infatuation would jeopardize the life of a longtime love: books.

Paperless offices, Kindles, EBooks, can this really spell the end of an over two-thousand year old tradition? I used to scoff at the idea, but now I just don’t know. Walk down to your local ma and pa bookstore and what do you see? Very likely a vacant building, a tore down building, a Starbucks. Unless you are very lucky, the place where you used to go to get books, to hobnob with friends, it isn’t there anymore and probably hasn’t been for quite some time.

Go to your local convenience store and checkout the magazine rack. It may even take you a while to find a convenience store with a magazine rack, but when you do, you will notice that it is much smaller than it once was, that there really isn’t all that much to choose from.

Go to your nearest conglomerate mega-bookstore and you may find that it too isn’t there anymore. And if it is still there, you will notice just how few actual books there are. Electronic gadgets, children’s toys, puzzles, board games, office supplies, but books, really not that many, especially for…you know…a bookstore.

Physical Books vs. Virtual Books

No matter how you look at it, it is apparent that interest in good old-fashioned books is waning. Does this mean people are reading less? No, not really. They may even be reading more. They are just opting to get their information fix in the electronic medium.

Is this a potentially dangerous phenomenon? Well, that’s a topic we’ll be exploring in this article. I can tell you from the onset, I hate what has happened to books and magazines. I grew up loving books. For almost as long as I can remember, I have had the dream of having my words published, not in a blog, not on a Kindle, but in a real, actual, bona fide book. I can’t articulate to you how sad it makes me that I may have missed my chance.

But my biases aside, let’s weigh the facts and interject a little logic and just see who comes out the victor: books or electronics.

When I was a boy, computers were a way to compose books, not publish them.
When I was a boy, computers were a way to compose books, not publish them. | Source

Convenience

First we’ll look at finding information. In this category the internet has a huge advantage in respect to just finding a fact. If I type in “How nuclear submarines work,” in seconds I get a number of sites, some of which actually explain how nuclear submarines work. Posed with this same task at a library, I’m in for a journey.

First I have to go to the library, and this particular library may or may not have a book on submarines. If it doesn’t, then off to another library. If it does, then off to go find it. This is a process that nerds like me love, but it is not efficient.

When I finally find the book I’m looking for, there is a much better chance that the information contained within is accurate and in-depth than what I find on the internet. But as far as the aspect of efficiently finding something, the book route is inferior in this regard.

But there are other search aspects in which the physical book may still prove superior. Let’s say we are at a book club discussing Moby Dick. Half the club has the book on electronic devices and the other half has a physical copy. One member starts, “Remember the part where…” and another says, “Oh yeah.” And the next thing you know the group is conducting a search for the exact passage.

Even the trusty dictionary is fading to black.
Even the trusty dictionary is fading to black. | Source

Who finds it quicker? I know that when we’re talking about a large work, I can find information more quickly in a physical book than in a virtual one. If you’ve read the physical book, you have a sense of space and time. You know which section of the book to flip through to find the excerpt. You can flip through pages quite quickly.

Is this true in say a Kindle? I really don’t know. Though I grew up with computers around, they are not as engrained in my generation as they are in the newer ones. It could be that the young buck with Kindle in hand could beat me to the punch, but I like my chances in this scenario.

I also grew up marking pages and sections of books. It is unusual to see me reading a physical copy I own without a pen or pencil in hand, underlining things I find significant, making notes in the margins. Not only does this make information easier to find, it increases comprehension. I can’t help but think our younger generation is missing out on something by not being able to do this.

And what about the use of a dictionary? I rarely write or read without a dictionary at arm’s length. I can find a definition at a moment’s notice in this fashion. Compare that to the process of bringing a definition up online, and I don’t think there is much difference in speed, but I believe the dictionary route to be a bit faster.

Accuracy and Quality

Next let’s look at validity of information. Whether we are perusing the internet or the local library, we must exercise discretion in regard to what information we choose to except as fact or at least as plausible, but is there more misinformation in physical books or on the internet?

By a goodly margin, there is more misinformation on the internet. That being said, it isn’t all that hard to tell the nonsense from the sensible on the internet, and there is a great deal of solid information in cyberspace.

I stress this because so many of our older generation discredit the internet to the point that one would believe it is only peopled by the ignorant and illiterate. This simply isn’t true, especially if you know how to discriminate between quality sources and irrelevant ones.

But it is still true that a higher level of quality information and informed opinions exist in physically published books than on the web.

Opinion

Do you prefer reading a physical book or a virtual one?

See results

Environmental Impact

What about the environmental aspect? One of the biggest pushes for making our world paperless is the environment. Trees are a renewable source, but they grow slowly. Electronic devices make an environmental imprint to produce, but they can last for a long time and a single electronic device can hold libraries worth of information.

In addition, books take up physical space. They need a great deal of room for housing. An electronic device does not, but they do need energy to function, energy that is often supplied by un-renewable resources.

Yet all in all, it isn’t even close. I hate to say it, but electronic devices are far better for the environment. From the production of paper, a nasty process that takes all manner of chemicals and power, to dye, to building libraries to house them, to everything else that goes into the manufacture and upkeep of books, they just aren’t very good for the world we live in.

Impact on Creative Writing

How about creative writing? In my opinion, the electronic medium really hurts creative writing, especially short stories and poetry. Yes, there are all manner of electronic books, but I still feel like the creative writing arts have kind of been left behind.

This is because the primary focus of internet writing has been information, whether that be factual, political opinion, or tabloid. There is a fair demand for novels, but in my humble opinion, the shorter forms simply aren’t proliferating the way they once did. For entertainment people are more apt to look to videos, games, and gossip than creative writing.

These days many are immersing themselves in the fantasy of video games rather than creative literature.
These days many are immersing themselves in the fantasy of video games rather than creative literature. | Source

Financial Impact

How do physical books and virtual writing impact our wallets? Again, sadly, the comparison isn’t even close. Buying books and paying for the room to keep them in can cost a fortune. Yes, electronic devices are expensive, but over a lifetime you may only have to purchase a handful of them.

Furthermore, a subscription to the internet gives us access to an almost infinite amount of information. Subscriptions to online book providers likely give us access to more information than all our local libraries combined. Then there is fuel cost. Back and forth from the library or bookstore, such things add up quickly these days.

Can you imagine if all learning institutions went to electronic books? The initial cost would be tremendous, but the savings would soon be apparent. Textbooks cost a fortune. Housing these books takes up valuable classroom space. Every few years you have to get a brand new, updated book.

There would still be costs, but the electronic versions of books would cost far less to produce and purchase.

At least there is one thing they will not soon be making paperless.
At least there is one thing they will not soon be making paperless. | Source

Opinion

Do you think the following generations would miss out if physical books became obsolete?

See results

Conclusion

It is seldom that logic brings me to a conclusion I hate, but I’m on the ledge now. All things considered, electronic books look to be the better move for the future. Do I like this? No. I positively hate it. I hate it so much, that I am imploring you, gentle reader, please convince me otherwise.

A vision that makes my skin crawl: I am not a particularly religious person, but I do stop by the church from time to time to reflect and find solace. Can you imagine the preacher saying, “Now pick up the Kindle in front of you and hit the icon that reads, ‘The Book of Job’”? I don’t know why, but this just seems wrong to me. Maybe some churches are already doing this?

I do still believe that physical books are superior on a few levels, but assuming that some physical copies are kept by publishers in case the grid ever goes down and that we do find a way to proliferate all forms of creative writing electronically, a paperless world is better, I guess.

Just a matter of time before they find a way to virtually wipe your…never mind. When did I become a cranky old man?

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    • Larry Rankin profile image
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      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Anna: there's just something about holding a book that can't be replaced.

    • AnnaCia profile image

      AnnaCia 2 years ago

      Dear Larry: Great job with this hub. I do love my books; I love to touch and feel their beauty. Their pages filled with information, journeys, biographies, and so much more, give me a lot of satisfaction. Thanks for the hub.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
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      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Dave: thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    • Dave Lynch profile image

      David Edward Lynch 2 years ago from Port Elizabeth, South Africa

      I'm hoping that books don't die out altogether; I relate better to the printed page; I'm not against online reading though, I try to create a balance between the 2 different mediums.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
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      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Bobby: some of the bookstores are still around, but they're mainly of the corporate variety. I sure miss spending lazy days hanging out at the local bookstore. It was as much about society as reading the books.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    • the rawspirit profile image

      Robert Morgan 2 years ago from Hutchinson Island, FL - Myrtle Beach, SC - Scottsdale AZ

      Love the toilet paper close lol. As for me, I find downloading to my book I am using for research works well, but there is nothing like a good book in hand for a relaxing read. I also am really missing the bookstores, especially the ones with the coffee houses. Thanks again for a great read. Have to vote it up.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Frozen Ink: I am very much in the same boat. I get far more enjoyment reading a physical book, but I see the enormous potential of the ebook.

    • frozenink profile image

      frozenink 2 years ago

      This is an informative read. I think the analysis are quite detailed. My personal preference when reading would be the physical book. It feels more real, I do more of a role in flipping it, and highlighting sentences in a physical book feels more enjoyable.

      But I think ebooks have the advantage of convenience. Two thoughts on this. First, bringing a laptop or tablet would easily mean bringing all those ebooks along. Second, if I were to search for a phrase or concept or idea, it could be easily done via an ebook rather than flipping over the pages or index.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
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      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      I've seen Book of Eli and Beauty and the Beast. I've also seen so many old movies with giant libraries. In my dreams I always have one of those rolling ladders so I can climb up to the higher shelves.

      I love real books. I hope that if we ever do go all digital, we at least have the forethought to keep hard copies of all the books somewhere.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

    • oceansnsunsets profile image

      Paula 2 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      This is a tough subject! Its hard to deny what we are seeing and experiencing. I can't help but think of an extreme work of fiction, but the movie Book of Eli comes to mind for a moment. I wonder if you have seen that? That thought aside for a moment, I can't picture a world without paper books. I think they will become increasingly valuable on the one hand. I think there is some possible damage that could happen if we lose them altogether. So much is going through my mind at the moment, like when we got special permission to go into the Library of Congress after getting a library card, for the one day I was in Washington DC. I can't imagine that library being gone!

      If we lose our paper books for any reason, we are totally reliant on the computers or gadgets. These are only as close to us as our next outlet for charging them. We get auto updates for our gadgets, and I just don't like the idea of being totally "beholden" to them. I also feel like this conversation is distantly related to electric cars, or telephone landlines, strange as that sounds. Everything could completely stop working, and we ought not be so reliant on these newer things. So anyway, definitely a good hub in regards to food for thought! I remember feeling literally so sad when Borders closed, and some others. In the mean time, I have a ton of paper books, and still dream of one day having a library like the one in Disney's movie, Beauty and the Beast! If you haven't seen that one, look it up. (Just for fun, if nothing else.) Thanks again.

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 2 years ago

      Larry,

      I love bookstores too and reading them physically at home. I have not not bought books - nor anything else - online.

      Kevin

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Examiner: not on Twitter, yet. I know you can get books online, but I preferred the process of physically searching and being able to examine them. I know I'm just stuck in my ways:-)

    • The Examiner-1 profile image

      The Examiner-1 2 years ago

      Larry: Are you on Twitter? There are Kindle books and paperback books. There are still bookstores around but people buy them online like Amazon and e-Bay.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Sue: that about sums up my feelings about it as well. I know the benefits of the Kindle, but there is just a romance with the book that the Kindle can't replace.

      Thanks for dropping by.

    • Sustainable Sue profile image

      Sustainable Sue 2 years ago from Altadena CA, USA

      I don't know about that. One of my favorite places for reading is in bed and I wouldn't use a tablet for that. I also like reading at bus stops and in buses or trains or planes while going somewhere. None of those provide Internet access, although I suppose I could download a book onto my Kindle. I just like the physical feel of a book, more than the smell. I do like the environmental aspect though.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
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      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      CJ: excellent and well thought out, and I agree with everything you've said, but I'm still sad to see the physical book phased out, totally illogical, I know.

    • jacharless profile image

      Charles James 2 years ago from Between New York and London

      Larry, thank goodness, books will never be dead. However, as a pre-Hipster post-Hippie generational, writer and technologist believe paper books are near their end. Digital books are the future, mainly because of three factors:

      Population: anyone born after 1995 is thoroughly immersed and familiar with wireless tech (ie smartphones, tablets, readers). Albeit 1/2 the planet still does not have internet or fancy iPads to read books from yet. But they'll catch up soon enough.

      Environmental: apart from reducing the bulk storage required for paper books, digital also reduces the use of tree paper -even the need for recycled paper, thus reducing raw GHGs. With less space being used by digital books, a library can now hold 5000 times more books than it ever could -in a room no larger than the average loo (where I often do a lot of reading, ha!)

      Economics: dollar for dollar, digital books cost far less to produce, house and distribute. As a result, whether or not we admit the greed factor, authors can earn substantial more.

      Other things lean in favor of digital, such as interaction, more creativity with the use of various softwares to enrich the reader's' visual experience. The only thing missing is that "new book smell" which is something personally missed with digital. Yes! I'm "that guy" you've seen in B&N sniffing books :) And who knows, they might create a Fabreeze perfumed tablet cover of that smell!

      Cheers,

      CJ

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Mr Happy: wonderful points that enforce that books aren't dead just yet.

      I too have had the joy of being stranded in an ice storm and reading books by candlelight.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Cheryl: I have heard it said that the print format is still easier on the eyes than the electronic format. I'm compelled to agree. Plus, if you get sand on your paperback, or even drop it in the ocean, you aren't out several hundred dollars.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Shyron: thanks so much for the wonderful comments. I guess one way to look at books and the Internet are different forms of communication that don't necessarily have to compete.

    • Mr. Happy profile image

      Mr. Happy 2 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      I don't think physical books are in danger of extinction. I buy books constantly, for myself and others. I also do not like to fully rely on electricity. So, I do use the internet for writing, reading, etc. but I still write by hand, with a pen, on paper.

      Not this Winter but the one before we had an ice-storm and were without electricity for three days. I read books by candle-light. I don't put all my eggs in the electricity basket lol It's good but not a panacea.

      The other thing is, I get a lot more tired from reading on the computer than a book. Books are also easier to handle than a tablet, or whatever one would be reading a kindle book from. Almost forgot too: I sometimes write notes, or underline things as I am reading - not used to doing that while reading off an electronic screen.

      Like with everything else in Life, there are pluses and there are minuses. Good article - thank You for putting it together.

      Cheers!

    • Author Cheryl profile image

      Cheryl A Whitsett 2 years ago from Jacksonville, Fl

      I wouldn't say they are dead. Every year when my husband go on vacation the beaches are lined with people in chairs reading books not kindles. My success has been more with people buying books then electronic versions. I think it depends on if a person really is addicted to a kindle or not. I still would rather have a book in my hand then read it on the internet.

    • Shyron E Shenko profile image

      Shyron E Shenko 2 years ago from Texas

      Larry, I too love my books and love to keep my treasured hard copies.

      And here on HP a whole world of stories or information opens up.

      HP is a library, a research lab, a chat room (Forums), social media- where friends are made like me and you.

      Do not fear my friend , you can crack open a book for years to come.

      Voted-up, UAI and shared.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Peachpurple: thanks for weighing in.

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      books aren't dead but people are giving up on paper backs books, resorting to computers

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Rebecca: I'm with you. Internet is great, but to me, books are the real thing.

    • rebeccamealey profile image

      Rebecca Mealey 2 years ago from Northeastern Georgia, USA

      I think books will be around for at a while. As long as old ladies like me tote them to the beach and pool, anyway! You did a great job putting this together.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Paul: thanks for dropping by. I'm glad to get so much support for books, as I can't see living without them, myself.

    • Paul Kuehn profile image

      Paul Richard Kuehn 2 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      This is an awesome hub which is very interesting. I personally feel that books are here to stay, at least in Thailand. There are a lot of book stores that sell both Thai and foreign books in hardback and paperback. I purchase all of my books in paperback because they are cheaper and I hate using a Kindle or a computer to read books. As to education, the cost of attending college would be a lot less if students could get their lessons on online rather than paying outrageous prices for books. Voted up and sharing with HP followers and on Facebook.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Pstraubie: I hope you're right. I sure still like my books. I really enjoyed the comments.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      Books are here to stay....my biased prediction :D Computers, kindles, Droids, notebooks, you name-its are here too ...and holographic books will be available world wide before we know it.

      But there will always be the need to hold the BOOK in our hands...and have it fall on our nose as we drift off to sleep.

      Yes, paperless would be a benefit but as sophisticated as we are we can certainly recycle enough paper to manufacture books..I mean really...and keep the cost down too

      We shall see...I wish I could come back in a few thousand years and see what happened...will our books be comparable to those early writings on papyrus??

      Well done....Angels are on the way to you this evening ps

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 2 years ago from Oklahoma

      Au Fait: I'd be lying if I said I don't prefer the feel of a physical copy, but I see the benefit of going paperless, so I'm torn.

      Thanks for the insight.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 2 years ago from North Texas

      I have often wished there was a gigantic virtual library where we who wish to could have a small section where we keep those books/periodicals/newspapers, etc. that we want to have quick and easy access to. No dusting, no packing up and moving books, no destruction of books due to flooding or fire, no insurance on books, etc.. When moving, just pack up the laptop and your library goes with you.

      At the same time, there are times when I want to sit in a comfortable place and just read a hard copy, not a computer screen. For that we could print out copies of books or sections/pages/paragraphs of books, but that still would not be a book such as you describe in your opening. It would be so convenient and save tons of money and trees, and ultimately the environment, as you have already pointed out.

      I don't think books are completely obsolete, but they are close to that condition.

      I have written a hub on how to judge the quality of information online. Magazines and newspapers aren't always so dependable regarding the accuracy of their information either. Books usually are because most publishers won't touch a book that isn't accurate, but with self publishing that could change, too.

      Thought provoking article. Do we know where we're headed and are we sure we want to go there?

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Favored: Wonderful comments,

      I'm in the same boat as you. I am also more proficient with a book in hand than a computer book. The big question to me, is the new generation really more proficient on a computer than we were with physical books?

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 3 years ago from USA

      This has been a question I asked and have been asked. I know we have tons of technology these days, but I still like holding a physical book I can take notes with and write on the sidelines.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Dreamhowl: I couldn't agree with you more. I don't mean to sound hokie, but it is almost as though a physical book has a soul, and the other, I don't want to sound mean, because I enjoy blogging, but it just doesn't have the same life-force.

      Thanks so much for the comments

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 3 years ago from Oklahoma

      FlourishAnyway: thanks for the insight.

      There is currently a lot of evidence that bodes well for the physical book, but I can't help but think over time they will find a way around it. I hadn't heard about the slower reading concept of electronic books. Very interesting.

      With me, when I read something on the internet, there is just something that isn't there in comparison to the physical book. Even when I write something, I still, like a dinosaur, sometimes make a physical copy, and being able to hold it in my hand seems to enhance the editing process.

      Only time we tell, but I love my physical books, and I don't think I'm the only one.

      As always, wonderful comments.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 3 years ago from Oklahoma

      HSchneider: Thanks for the wonderful insight:

      I, like you, just can't seem to quite wrap my head around the internet book. It is so much easier to set down with a real book for me, but as the new generations only primarily see the electronic version, what is the overall effect over time?

      We have had some backtracking, though. Apparently the HIpster movement is a fan of the old-style book, for what ever that is worth.

    • Larry Rankin profile image
      Author

      Larry Rankin 3 years ago from Oklahoma

      Nadine May: In my way of thinking, if I really like a book, I want a physical copy. I am the same way with movies, but times are changing as the new generations cycle in.

      It is hard for me to believe that there won't always be some market for physical books.

      Thanks so much for the comments.

    • Dreamhowl profile image

      Jessica Marello 3 years ago from United States

      There is something about reading a physical book that I just cannot replace. I have read eBooks before, but it feels different. I love having books on my bookshelf, and being able to flip through them without turning on an electronic device.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      We tend to read electronic media about 30% slower and there's that pesky blue light issue about interfering with sleep. I like the old fashioned stuff.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 3 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      I agree with you, Larry, and I am in the same place. Online books are more convenient and here to stay. It is the natural progression. But I love physical books and I detest reading books online. Yes, I am a dinosaur also. Great Hub.

    • Nadine May profile image

      Nadine May 3 years ago from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

      Thank you for that well written review about physical books. We are publishers and our sales are now less than a third compared to 4 years ago. We are still in business but we needed to make drastic changes. My visions are that printed books will become more and more expensive, so they become a real luxury to own. What will happen is that readers will first buy the electronic book, and if they really like the book, they will invest in owning a printed copy for their bookshelves.

      Some books will not ever be available in print, but good books no matter what topic will, but at a cost. Voted up!